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Autism and Football

It’s that time of the year where whether you live in a small town or a big city, there’s a good chance that for the next twelve to sixteen week, your life will be dominated by football. As we’ve discussed in this space before, while physical activity in the form of sports can be extremely helpful in a child with autism’s development, such children tend to excel in more solitary sports like karate or swimming.

Simply put, for most families who have a child with autism, football is seemingly the least-likely sport that their child will play due to the intense social and communicative skills it requires. However, as many parents with autism will attest, when you are told by a doctor that your child will not be able to do something, it is when a child defies those expectations that truly deserves celebration.

Thus, in celebration of those moments when people with autism defy the odds and in honor of the start of football season, we are going to take a look at a few cases in which football helped a child with autism to realize his or her potential inside.

First up, last fall at Michigan’s Mason High School, the school’s varsity football team was trailing their opponent, DeWitt, by 22 points when Mason’s coach, Jerry Van Havel, made the call to put player Jay Granger on the field with the request that the other team let Granger run with the ball for a few steps. Granger, who was diagnosed as a child with autism, then did the unthinkable and went on to score a touchdown as DeWitt’s defense let up, making Granger’s lifelong dream come true.

“I don’t score touchdowns in football,” said Granger while being interviewed on Lansing, Michigan’s WLNS-TV for the station’s Player of the Week feature. “I really don’t have that much talent in the sport … it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my athletic career!” Van Havel was later recognized for his advocacy when he, his son, and Granger were awarded with the 2015 Autism Alliance of Michigan’s Courage Award.

As the above story shows, autism affects everyone and when you are a part of a team, you work together to make sure everyone succeeds. This is certainly evident in the case of Josh Bailey, another teenager from Michigan who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. However, though he remained nonverbal until the age of three, Bailey long held a passion for football and while he struggled to make friends and fit in, once he started to play football, he began to truly feel accepted.

“Football has given me basically all of my high school friends,” Bailey told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s given me something to love.” Bailey, who is 270 pounds and six feet and two inches tall, went on to earn a spot on the College of St. Joseph’s football team.

Finally, we turn to Indiana where the football player C.J. Jenkins, who has autism, serves as a constant inspiration to his teammates. Despite struggling with communication and his social skills, Jenkins’ commitment to the sport has inspired his team like nothing else.

“[Jenkins is] there every day and he’s doing the same things that everybody else is doing and he puts more into it than other people have to and it’s a credit to him but it lets all our other kids see how hard he’s working and it makes them push a little bit harder,” said Jenkins’ coach.

So while we might not always think of football as the most accessible sport for children with autism, its emphasis on being part of a team and supporting one another can make a massive change in the lives of players with autism and their friends and loved ones.